LAHORE - Monday was a day of retreat for Gen Pervez Musharraf. He changed his position on many counts – after which it seems he would be able to leave the country if he crossed the one last hurdle. His name is on the exit control list (ECL) and he will have to get it cleared before taking a flight abroad.

There are conflicting reports about who can help the former military ruler cross this barrier. The three-judge special court says it did not place Gen Musharraf’s name on the ECL and, therefore, is not in a position to remove it. According to the court, it’s a matter which is for the government to decide.

(Gen Musharraf’s new counsel Farogh Nasim told a news conference in Islamabad after the court verdict that he has filed an application with the interior secretary to have his client’s name deleted from the ECL).

On the other hand, PML-N leader Sheikh Rohail Asghar says it was the Sindh High Court that had put Gen Musharraf’s name on the ECL, and the Supreme Court had upheld the decision. The ruling party leader says the former president will have to approach the ‘court’ if he wants to leave the country.

Since the former president’s mother is said to be in a critical condition at a Sharjah hospital, it is expected that he would take whatever steps are required to be able to meet his ailing mother at the earliest possible.

A decision on Gen Musharraf’s application will, in fact, be taken by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, not the interior secretary.

It may be recalled that when Gen Musharraf had overthrown the PML-N government in October 1999, the Sharif family was allowed to leave the country under a Saudi-mediated agreement. Although the Sharifs repeatedly denied the existence of any such deal or apology, it was after seven years that Mr Sharif admitted that the deal was for five years.

In Saudi Arabia, the Sharifs were not allowed to leave the kingdom without permission from Islamabad. It was because of this precondition that Mian Shahbaz Sharif was allowed by Musharraf to go to the US for treatment of intestinal cancer.

Now it’s Sharifs turn to humiliate their tormentor. Although they say they have nothing personal against him, the fact is that they have not forgotten the (mis)treatment they had received after being toppled.

As for the proceedings in the special court, Gen Musharraf took U-turns on many points.

For example, until recently his lawyers have been alleging that the bench members were biased and had no right to hear the case.

They also said only a military court was competent to try their client under the Army Act and that the matter does not fall in the jurisdiction of the special court.

Similarly, after the last hearing, his lawyers contended that the bench had ceased to exist when Justice Faisal Arab left the courtroom after the defence lawyers levelled bias allegation against them.

The lawyers have also been hinting that since their client was in the intensive care unit of the Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology, he was not likely to appear before the court on Monday.

But a totally new situation was witnessed in the courtroom yesterday.

The man in the ‘Intensive Care Unit’ was present in the courtroom with a new counsel – Barrister Farogh Nasim (belonging to the MQM).

Ignoring all objections raised by his lawyers, Gen Musharraf heard the charge sheet, and pleaded ‘not guilty’.

If the judges were biased or the bench had ceased to exist, why Gen Musharraf appeared before them?

There is no plausible explanation for the change of mind except that for the time being he wants to get out of the country to rid himself of all pressures and be able to decide his future course of action in a free atmosphere.

His ‘not guilty’ plea contradicts his earlier stance on the subject.

Until recently, his lawyers have been saying that he had imposed emergency on November 3, 2007 in consultation with all relevant political and military figures. In the emergency proclamation he had identified all such people.

Gen Musharraf had not denied the charge, but his plea was that all aiders and abettors he had consulted should also be proceeded against. On a number of occasions, his lawyer Ahmed Raza Kasuri said there were hundreds of people who would have to face the case and this would open a Pandora’s box.

The change in Gen Musharraf’s thinking raises many a question. Has he retreated because the army is not supporting him? Is Gen Raheel Sharif another Jehangir Karamat who surrendered to the prime minister in 1998? Is the apparent retreat by Musharraf a strategy chalked out in consultation with the army leadership? Will the government allow Musharraf to leave the country to oblige some foreign friends? Will Gen Musharraf return to Pakistan in case he was allowed to leave the country? Will he be another Husain Haqqani – who left the country on assurance to return but did not honour the word?

Answers to these questions will be available in the times ahead.